Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Good of the Novel?

An excellent new book from Faber, The Good of the Novel, edited by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan, is a series of essays on the nature and current state of the novel, circling such questions as What kinds of truth can be told uniquely through novels? and taking in an examination of the role of the critic.  Each essay focuses on an individual novel, and the contents include Robert Macfarlane on Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty; Tessa Hadley on Coetzee's Disgrace and James Wood on Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  I have already gobbled up the excellent (and inspiring) introduction and James Wood's opening piece, which I'm not sure I agree with entirely - must read it again, more carefully - but which is exciting food for thought.  I'd say the book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the present-day novel. 

There's a discussion on the topic on the Faber blog, to which I was very kindly asked to contribute. In Part 1 Richard T Kelly, editor of Faber Finds and agent Clare Alexander contribute their views, and in Part 2 I have my say along with two other bloggers, Paperback Reader and Juxtabook. Do go on over and contribute your own views.

Cross-posted with Elizabeth Baines

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Now and Then

Three cheers for Graham Swift for tackling, and indeed attacking, the current notion of the 'contemporary novel' in yesterday's Guardian. It's an impossibility, he says: novels often take too long to write to be entirely 'contemporary', and are written in reflection rather than in the white heat of contemporaneous reportage. He says something I've been thinking about for a while: that the novels by Dickens and Tolstoy which we may now take to have been 'of their time' were in fact set in an earlier period than the time of writing. Crucially, he says, the true subject of novels is the passage of time, which requires a wider and more reflective historical scope than a concentration on the 'now'.

Commenters on the piece taking issue with him seem to be missing the point that the concept of 'nowness'  he's attacking - ie simply that of the period in which a novel is set - stems from our current culture; it's not his own definition of 'nowness' and he's at pains to point out that novels have their own, more valuable, kind of 'nowness'.

It's an important point: that current obsession with contemporaneity puts pressure on novelists (and publishers), I feel: it appears to be marketing gold to be able to say that a novel is a gauge of current society.

Though on the other hand, there's Simon Reynolds contending that we're just wallowing in nostalgia now...